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MANDELA’S VISIT TO L.A. : Mandela Puts a Little Magic Back in the T-Shirt Business : Scene: Street entrepreneurs get a little extra time to cash in when anti-apartheid leader is late arriving downtown.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Larry Weathers grins, two gold teeth sparkle in the sun, little five-point stars chiseled on each. He calls his business “A Touch of Class” and when Weathers heard Nelson Mandela was running late, the stars seemed to be smiling.

“Oh, yeah, I love it,” Weathers said. “I love it, I love it, I love it.”

Weathers is a T-shirt entrepreneur, and on Friday, Mandela was the hottest shirt in Los Angeles. The South African anti-apartheid leader was bigger than Madonna, bigger than Dick Tracy--bigger even than Bart Simpson. For Weathers, Mandela’s late arrival meant more time to sell shirts, caps, posters and buttons.

Like Los Angeles celebrations of yore--from the Laker and Dodger championships to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1988--the visit of Nelson Mandela brought street capitalists out in force. This time, there was nothing to rival the tackiness of “Pope Soap on a Rope.” But the enterprise made for an unusual blend of human ideals and the profit motive.

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“I believe what he’s doing is right because, you know, he’s for the people,” Weathers said. “And I’m making people happy because I give them a good deal.”

Neither Mandela nor his political organization, the African National Congress, would get a piece of Weathers’ profits. ProServ--the sports marketing firm that represents such sports stars as Michael Jordan and John McEnroe, and is the official licensee of Mandela tour products--would handle sales inside the Coliseum, with a cut going to ANC.

But on the streets, it was left to an army of men and women like Weathers. The competition was intense. Most of the merchandise was celebratory, but amid all the upbeat spirit, one T-shirt posed a skeptical question: “Freedom at Last?”

The customers--who came from all walks of life--didn’t seem to care who made the money. These weren’t just souvenirs of some passing fad, they pointed out.

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“It never dawned on me to ask,” said Tahirih Smith, wearing her new $10 “Freedom” T-shirt. “I’ll spread the word by wearing it.”

Kerry Thorne, who works at the Children’s Museum, doesn’t usually go for T-shirts. “But this is different. This is history,” Thorne said. “And wearing this might help us here where we have our own form of apartheid. L.A. is such a segregated city.”

Shirts weren’t the only thing being sold outside City Hall. Leftists were hawking Mandela books and Marxist ideology. Nation of Islam members were offering the teachings of Louis Farrakhan. Christians were proselytizing anyone who would listen. A Democrat was registering voters.

Thousands showed up for Mandela, but thousands more were expected. For many entrepreneurs, business was disappointing as they awaited Mandela’s arrival.

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Business apparently was more brisk at the Coliseum, where more than tens of thousands of well-wishers gathered to hear Mandela speak.

One vendor, Miguel Gonzales, 24, of Trinidad, said that in the first three hours that the gates were open, he sold 400 programs at $4 each.

“A lot of people are confused because they aren’t sure if the money is going to the ANC,” he said.

As it turns out, Gonzales wasn’t sure either.

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Throughout the day, however, several salesmen said they really and truly weren’t in it for the money, but for the cause.

One man passed out half a dozen shirts to homeless men. Tommy Dean, 33, had brought out 500 copies of his own drawings of Mandela. He was asking $3 each, and the revenue would go to his block club in Compton. But few people were buying.

And Muhammad Khalib said his posters would benefit the Muslim City Walk Committee, a community group that tries to put gang members on the straight and narrow. He was selling framed portraits of Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sammy Davis Jr.

“These are heroes,” Khalib said, “and people are just walking on by.”

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Finally, Mandela arrived at City Hall. When he spoke, he offered a message of hope and freedom and brotherly love. When he finished, the T-shirt business was suddenly booming.

Mandela was, without question, his own best salesman.


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